It’s hard to believe that an alternative music club known for its diverse acts in politically correct Seattle has been called the Chop Suey for 13 years. It’s even more surprising to me that no one has made a big fuss about it until this year.
Andy Allen, an elementary school teacher and bassist for all people of color dance band My Parade, saw an opportunity to challenge the venue’s name when he heard new club owners, Brian Houck, Erin Carnes, and Brianna Rettig from Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, respectively, would be taking over and making renovations to the club. On Jan. 27, he sent and published an open letter asking Rettig to consider renaming the venue.
Though he wants to have a conversation with the new owners about this before its soft reopening on March 6, the likelihood that this will happen seems to be waning every day. To this day, Allen has not heard back from them.
Rettig, in response to a phone call from the Globalist on Feb. 25, also said she had no comment on the matter.
Though a name change does not look like it is in the works, in a press release disseminated on Feb. 16, venue promoters announced that Chop Suey will be the future home of The Den, which will replace the club’s Asian-themed “Dragon Lounge.”
While groups like The Chromatics, and LICK!, who once organized the venue’s monthly queer dance parties, have publicly stated they support Allen’s renaming efforts, when The Stranger interviewed Allen last week, the post generated 72 comments mostly questioning what the big deal was.
One commenter, “Brooklyn Reader,” stated:
“When it comes to decor and names, I’m having trouble setting aside the romantic relationship Americans have with oriental imagery in order to find it underpinned by animus. I can understand how having your culture misunderstood and misrepresented can be irritating, but I don’t think it’s being done out of hatred or prejudice. To most Americans, and certainly to many East Coast Jewish Americans, Chinese restaurants were their first taste of something exotic in their lives. Can’t we cut a little slack for residual mid-20th century cultural infatuation? At worst, it’s a fond nostalgia for exposure to something seemingly exotic.”
Many of the commenters, in fact, compared Allen’s request to reverse racism towards European cultures. One self-proclaimed Irish-English man likened the Chop Suey decor and name to the exaggerated adornment of the Georgian Room inside Seattle’s Olympic Hotel.
Not surprising in the fifth whitest city in the nation, but the comparisons “don’t equate to the racism I felt when I was a kid,” said Allen.
Like so many forms of subtle racism in Seattle that overlap with hipster culture, the use of Chinese ephemera and “kitsch” are so ubiquitous from a consumer standpoint, that they appear harmless to a mass majority. This is not the case for Allen, who is Chinese American.
“Growing up in rural Louisiana, being the only Asian person I knew in all of the town I grew up in, and [having] the experiences I go through whenever I walk into something that’s caricaturing [my culture] brings up all the stuff I experienced as a kid,” he said.
Allen doubts that an American of Italian descent, for example, would have that same experience walking into an Olive Garden.
Though this type of dialogue is pretty typical of Seattle, he was still surprised at the spectrum of comments leaning towards the side of implicating him for reverse racism, especially since he never actually called the new club owners racist.
“They just bought this thing, right? So of course I’m not going to say, ‘You’re racist,’” Allen said.
In his letter, Allen did however explain why he thought the new owners should rename the venue, considering the historic legend of the food’s invention:
“The dish came about when a group of drunken miners stumbled into a Chinese restaurant. Though the restaurant was closing and out of food, the miners demanded service. Out of fear for their lives, the workers assembled all the table scraps, fried them up and served them to the miners. The miners loved the dish and asked what the name of it was. The workers made up the name Chop Suey.”
Marc Mazique, a longtime Seattle drummer and Chop Suey renaming supporter is not surprised about how Seattle has responded to Allen’s request.
“I think people just feel it’s OK to do that to Asian folks because I think they think they feel that … Asian folks aren’t really suffering all that much compared to other people,” he said. “And I think it’s just a lack of understanding of a history of oppression of Asian folks and how that still, people have those things going today.”
The issue isn’t black and white. Allen thinks the reason why a group of people haven’t banded together to challenge the name of the venue before, for the most part, is because the club has gathered an inclusive and diverse community, thanks to booker Jodi Ecklund. In the instance that individuals have decided to boycott the venue, it has been weighed against its history of supporting DIY music and queer communities in Seattle. (Chop Suey has hosted queer music festivals and the monthly queer dance parties for years).
Its history isn’t so straightforward either. In 2002, the “Chop Suey” replaced The Breakroom when a Japan-based company assumed ownership, and in 2009, Japanese-American Roy Atizado took over to help upgrade the space. Subsequent ownership has kept with the catchy, identifiable theme.
This doesn’t make it OK, as Mazique, who is African American, stated in an excerpt of his letter in support of Chop Suey’s renaming:
“You might see this as hyperbolic, but imagine a club called ‘Mammy’s Kitchen’ that featured pictures of ‘happy slaves,’ Aunt Jemima, lawn jockeys, etc. As an African American, I’d find such a place upsetting even if it was owned by black folks. But my point is this: ‘Chop Suey’ may seem less offensive, but perhaps the question needs to be asked – why? Such distinctions simply enable certain racist acts and attitudes to seem okay, since it’s just about a particular set of non-white folks, which just keeps racism going. And then it’s just a matter of time before those attitudes and actions start seeming okay towards other folks of color.”
Without a response from the new owners, Allen is left to think of alternatives.
“I think if they keep opening as Chop Suey, then it’s time to start talking to the music community about whether they’re going to keep supporting clubs like that,” he said. “I think it’s been hard to get individuals to say, ‘I’m not going to go there.’ But what if bands start saying they’re not going to play there until they change their name?”
For now, it’s just a thought.